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Byzantine Civilization, a World CivilizationSperos Vryonis,
New York University
In celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of an institution of learning dedicated to the study and understanding of Byzantine civilization, we focus our attention on, and recall to memory, the late Robert and Mildred Bliss, who with their great intelligence created this famous center with the purpose of leading us to an understanding of a civilization that though it is of great significance we have comprehended only poorly or not at all. The title of my paper indicates indeed that we are dealing with a historical phenomenon, still very much alive, that has played a major role in the history of man.
In his prolix analysis of the world's civilizations, Arnold Toynbee identified Byzantium as one of twenty-one such civilizations, attributing to it an identity and broad characteristics along with such civilizations as Hellenic, Western, Sinic, Hindu, and others. This great historian ν is concerned with establishing the characteristic evolution and institutions associated with the birth, development, and maturation of civilizations, thereby giving a great deal of attention to the parentage and affiliation of each of the twenty-one that he studied. For Byzantine civilization he saw Hellenic or ancient Greek culture as the parent, as its geographical kernel he saw Asia Minor and the southern Balkans, and considered Russia and Siberia as its primary geographical displacement or expansion. Its internal and external proletariats he asserted to have been the Orthodox Christian church and the barbarian invaders.
I do not propose to justify or to invalidate Toynbee's civilizational theories, but certainly one must agree with him that Byzantine civilization is one of the world's major civilizations, along with those of the West, China, ancient Greece, etc. What we shall attempt, in this brief discussion, is to grasp the double nature of Byzantine civilization, that is, Greek and Christian, and then to follow its diffusion and influence in the Islamic, Slavic, and Western worlds, as well as in the lives of the Balkan and Russian peoples in early modern and modern times. One of the difficulties in the comprehension of the influence of this civilization lies in the nature of the older style history, which tended to follow narrow political boundaries. Inasmuch as the Byzantine Empire was destroyed by the military conquests of the Ottoman Empire, traditional historians have assumed that Byzantium died and with it its civilization. Its political truncation, therefore, entailed the death of its civilization. In this respect Toynbee's understanding of history is incisive, for he points out that the proper unit of historical study is civilization and not primarily the nation-state. Further, a civilization is much more than a political state. Thus, the death of the state does not usually bring with it the death of its civilization.
In order to comprehend the nature of Byzantium as a world civilization we must broadly sketch the map of its diffusion and the processes by which its civilization expanded and influenced other societies and peoples. The culture of Byzantium was hybrid in its development, being formed about the axes of ancient Greek language, literature, philosophy, science, medicine, art, and education. Its politico-legal institutions represent a fusion of Hellenistic and Roman ingredients. The second element, and it remains fundamental, was Judaic monotheism, which formed the basis of the Greek Orthodox Church. The Greek tradition was maintained in Byzantium from the time that its capital was built in Constantinople in 324-330 until the conquest of that city by the Ottomans in 1453. The heritage of Greek learning and letters was perpetuated through a system of education that emerged from the Greek world in late antiquity and which was crystallized in Alexandria. This educational system was spread throughout the empire, and the representatives of local urban, provincial, and central government
were largely trained in this system. The school curriculum thus guaranteed the survival of the kernel of the Greek authors and texts: Homer, many of the lyric poets, the dramatists, historians, philosophers, mathematicians, physicians, and scientists. Only that part of the classical heritage survived which had been incorporated into the school textbooks. This remained the basis of education in Byzantium until the Ottoman conquest.
But the church also created its own literature and philosophy. Thus, parallel to the Greek heritage there is that of new monotheistic religion: theology, hymnography, hagiography, homiletics. The motive forces and mentalities behind the Hellenic and ecclesiastical traditions were quite different, and so they presented contradictions in early Byzantine civilization. Hellenism in much of its formal expression had given priority to human logic in the comprehension and resolution of man's relations to man, nature, and the superhuman. The church took the Judaic stance of the priority of divine revelation and holy books over human logic. The tension was to remain, though church and society reached a symbiosis that allowed a place for both elements in Byzantine civilization. The Greek church fathers early embraced ancient Greek education as absolutely essential as the only type of basic education in existence. Many went to pagan or Greek schools, and the resolution is exemplified in St. Basil's famous "Address to the youth as to how they might profit from Greek literature." He informs them that only after an extended education in Hellenic letters and literature will the mind be sufficiently mature so as to be able to comprehend the great Christian mysteries. Without a Hellenic education this would be impossible. He states: "Accordingly we can profit [from this pagan literature] according to the image of the bee. For they [the bees] neither alight on all flowers, nor do they attempt to take away everything from those flowers on which they do alight, but having taken away whatever is correct for their labor, they bid farewell to the rest."
Thus the symbiosis of the Hellenic with the strictly monotheistic strands in the culture of Byzantium was sealed, and they lived side by side throughout the millennial existence of the empire. Such, very briefly, is the hybrid character of this historical civilization: Hellenic and Christian.
Consequently, Byzantium, in its encounter with other civilizations and peoples, brought with it two cultural suitcases: the one filled with Hellenic raiment, and the other with Christian garb. Even before the massive encounters with the Islamic and the Slavic worlds Byzantine civilization profoundly affected such peoples as the Goths (giving them an alphabet, the translation of the Gospels, and therefore the creation of the first German literature), the Armenians and Syrians (giving them varying portions of both the Christian legacy, the Gospels, and Hellenism, translations and school curriculum), and the Latin West (educational system, theology, and monasticism).
We shall now turn to the early ninth century when, after two centuries of intense and often hostile contact, both Slavic and Islamic cultures became domains of extensive influence from and diffusion of Byzantine civilization. We shall observe what aspects of Byzantium's hybrid culture these two worlds absorbed, the process which determined the absorption, and the effect of the diffusion of Byzantine civilization in the Islamic and Slavic worlds.
We should first keep in mind the fact that in the seventh century both the Muslim Arabs and the pagan Slavs established themselves on substantial areas that had been formerly a part of the Byzantine Empire and its civilization. In the case of the south Slavs this was primarily in the northern and central Balkan peninsula; as for the Muslim Arabs, they took over the entire provinces of Syria, Palestine, Mesopotamia, and parts of Armenia, Egypt, and North Africa. Thus the first Muslim-Arab empire, that of the Umayyad dynasty, from the seventh century and until 751, established its center in these eastern Byzantine provinces. Its capital was in the Byzantine city of Damascus, and centers were also focused in other Byzantine towns. As the conquests were conservative and not destructive, and as these were very rapid and decisive, the Byzantine structure of economy, administration, society, and religion was left largely undisturbed. Consequently, early Islamic administrative, economic, fiscal, and social institutions were heavily influenced by this older Byzantine tradition. The Arabs were primarily concerned with political control and financial exploitation. Their own religion and culture were still in the process of formation. They attempted, in fact, to conquer Constantinople and to place themselves on the throne of the Byzantine emperors. Ultimately, they were unable to overcome the Byzantine Empire, and in 751, when the new Abbasid dynasty destroyed the Umayyads, the center of the Islamic caliphate was shifted from its Mediterranean, Byzantine base to Mesopotamia, ultimately to Baghdad, and to a politico-cultural environment heavily under the influence of Persian society and culture. Thus the first phase of Byzantine influence on the Islamic world came to an end.
Paradoxically, the intellectual and cultural influence of Byzantine civilization on the civilization of Islam did not occur until after the center of the caliphate had been shifted from the Mediterranean to the Mesopotamian world. In little more than half a century after the establishment of the Abbasids in Baghdad, more specifically in the reign of Caliph al-Mamun (813-833), an important process was inaugurated by which portions of the Hellenic heritage of Byzantine civilization were transmitted to Islamic civilization through the active translation of a significant body of Greek texts and with them the understanding and teaching of their contents. Caliph al-Mamun established the Bayt al-Hikma, or House of Wisdom, in Baghdad, a richly endowed research institute where he brought together the leading scholars of Greek literature, language, and education with the specific purpose of translating the Greek texts into Arabic.
Why did the caliph suddenly turn to the intellectual traditions of Hellenic civilization? What part of this broader civilization did the Muslims appropriate for themselves? What were the mechanics by which this process of borrowing was effected, and finally what affect did all this have on Islamic civilization?
Cultural diffusion and borrowing constitute, essentially, a functional phenomenon. Cultural borrowing takes place because the elements borrowed serve some function in the society of the borrowers. It is true that there are also other aspects that help to initiate cultural diffusion, such as the prestige of the donating culture, aesthetics, and the like. But essentially it is a process motivated by functionality. Thus Islamic society found some use for the materials and traditions which it borrowed.
As for the portion of Hellenic civilization which they borrowed, the tenth-century Arab author al-Nadim, in his general encyclopedia of the various types of knowledge current and accessible in the Islamic caliphate of his day, gives us a clear picture of that portion of Hellenism which came into Islamic civilization. The first and seemingly most important to the caliph and the court circles was Greek medicine. Its functionality was obvious to the ruling class. An improved medical system meant better, healthier, and longer lives. Thus the translators were encouraged to translate a very substantial portion of the Greek medical corpus. The most important author who was translated, and he was very extensively translated, was Galen. One hundred and twenty-eight of his medical treatises were translated into Arabic and soon revolutionized the development of medicine in the Islamic world. Other late ancient Greek medical compendia also found their way into Arabic. There followed translations of Greek works in astronomy, arithmetic, geometry, geography, and science. In the realm of philosophy the translators transmitted the bulk of the writings of Aristotle, only some four or five of the Platonic dialogues, and works of Plotinus and other Neoplatonic philosophers.
This very brief enumeration of the authors and categories of ancient Greek writings and learning tell us clearly what exactly Islamic civilization took and what it avoided. First, the Muslims borrowed almost exclusively from the older Hellenic heritage of Byzantine civilization, avoiding by and large the Christian component. This we would expect, on functional grounds, for by the ninth century the Islamic religion was crystallizing as a complete ethical, theological, and legal system. Borrowings from Byzantine Christianity would have been unacceptable within the framework of formal Islamic culture. Further, the process of borrowing even from the Hellenic heritage was limited by the rules of functionality. Medicine, the sciences, arithmetic, geometry, geography, and astronomy had very specific applications and were of immediate use to the rulers of this vast, extended empire that stretched from Gibraltar to the Indus and from Central Asia to the sources of the Nile. Geography and astronomy had very specific advantages, as did medicine. Thus the Muslims borrowed essentially the "useful" portion of Hellenic civilization. What of philosophy? Was this practical? Here the answer is not clear cut. First, the writings of Aristotle covered a huge epistemological horizon, from the sciences of the heavens, the earth, and the waters. The horizon covered more abstract matters, such as the process of reasoning and logic, etc. We should also recall that the Galenic system of medicine, which had made such an incursion into Islamic civilization, contained a very important philosophical component, as we see in Galen's famous treatise entitled, "On the fact that the best physician is also a philosopher." Whatever the causes, the influx of Aristotle and other philosophical writings created a serious problem and constituted a grave threat to a civilization based on a revelational religion which gave priority to the truth of revelation over human logic. The unchecked introduction of Greek philosophy and philosophers threatened to undermine the bases and overthrow the nature of the Islamic faith. Here the revelational demands of Islam prevailed, and the roles of philosophy and logic were limited, at best, to the obligational support of the veracity of the faith. In short, Islamic civilization relegated philosophy and logic to the role of the handmaiden of theology, as occurred also in the Latin West and in Byzantium.
How was it that in the ninth century this massive Hellenic infusion into the formation of Islamic civilization came about? The answer lies in the observation that a portion of Byzantine civilization had survived the Islamic conquests and had long been resident in the lands of the caliphate, even before the conquests. Here we are speaking of what has been termed Syrian Hellenism. The Syriac-speaking Christians, both Monophysites and Nestorians, had long ago adopted the curriculum of the late Greek schools of Alexandria, so that the study of Greek, Aristotle, Plato, Porphyry, Homer, and other authors remained standard in many of the schools in the very lands of the caliphate. Medicine had long been a monopoly of the Syriac Christians, and it was they who played the major role in the translation of the Greek texts, often via Syriac, into Arabic.
The effects of the diffusion of this portion of Byzantine civilization contributed substantially to the enrichment of a larger and rich civilization, that of Islam. In the eleventh and twelfth centuries, the Arabized Aristotle and Galen were to enter Latin Christendom via Italy and Spain and to have a substantial effect on medicine and philosophy in the Latin Middle Ages. The genius of Aristotle and Galen were such that they could move about not only in Greek garb but also in the raiment of Syriac, Arabic, and Latin.
The encounter of Byzantine civilization with the Slavic world, in exactly the same period when it encountered Islam, is exceedingly instructive. Given that not only were the two encounters contemporary, but that each of these two newer societies had the double Byzantine heritage (i.e., the Hellenic and the Christian) from which to select, we have before us two cases that lend themselves readily to comparison. In the early ninth century the majority of the Slavic world was just beginning to emerge, or had only recently emerged, from a chaotic heroic age when the Slavic tribes, ununified and uncoordinated, had expanded from north-central Europe eastward into the Ukraine and Russia, southward into the Balkans, and westward into present-day Germany, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and Austria. These splintered tribal societies were, in the sixth, seventh, and eighth centuries, largely devoid of any higher political concepts and organization. The Slavs were illiterate, possessing neither alphabet nor writing, prior to the mid-ninth century. Their religion constituted a type of Indo-European paganism with many similarities to the paganism of Greece, India, and Iran. The archaeological evidence for the level of their material culture testifies to a very underdeveloped state, as their pottery did not know even the potter's wheel.
Beginning in the late sixth and continuing for a good part of the seventh century, the south Slavic tribes pushed into a substantial portion of the Balkan peninsula, destroying in its northern and central sections all the essential institutions of Byzantine civilization: towns, administration, Christianity, and schools and education. By the early ninth century, however, and in the case of the Bulgarian state which only slowly was Slavonized, the south Slavs had come into contact with the Carolingian and Byzantine empires and with Western and Byzantine civilizations. Gradually, under this influence and with the internal evolution of higher state forms, the south Slavs entered the more evolved civilizations of their neighbors. When the Moravian prince Sviatopluk appealed to the Byzantine emperor for Christian missionaries, the basileus sent out to Moravia the mission of saints Cyril and Methodius. Being bilingual, knowing both Greek and one of the south Slavic dialects, these two brothers and their monks began a massive program of conversion, which involved the creation of the first Slavic alphabet and the translation of the Christian holy books and a portion of Christian literature. Further, they brought with them concepts of state, church, and society which were pervasive. Though their mission ultimately failed in Moravia, where the Latin clergy replaced the Byzantines, their labors were transferred to the Bulgarian kingdom. In Bulgaria, the khan Boris had been forced to accept baptism and conversion at the hands of the Byzantine state and church: Boris was baptized with the emperor as his godfather and the Byzantine armies as guarantors. He enforced the new religion on his recalcitrant Bulgarian aristocracy, suppressing their insurrection in a bloody fashion. He had sent his son Symeon to study in Constantinople, where he was made a monk and received a thorough education in both the Hellenic and Christian cultural heritages of Byzantine civilization. When he returned to Bulgaria he had an excellent knowledge of ancient Greek literature, his favorite authors having been Demosthenes and Aristotle. Indeed, the Latin bishop Liudprand of Cremona refers to him as half-Greek. But as a monk and future Bulgarian archbishop, he was steeped in patristic, hagiographical, liturgical, and theological writings. He had returned to Pliska, his father's capital, a Bulgarian version of the Byzantine educated and cultured man. He was imbued with the whole politico-cultural concepts of Byzantium which gave a special ' character to church-state relations. In short, Symeon had been captured by Byzantine civilization. When his older brother rebelled, Boris slew him and, in 893, promoted Symeon to the Bulgarian throne.
The history of his reign, which ended with his death in 927, marks the profound Byzantinization of the Bulgarian kingdom and its subjects, the creation of the first golden age of Bulgarian literature, and the first effort of the Bulgars to take over the Byzantine state and to make of their kings Byzantine emperors. Symeon created a major translation and literary center at his new capital of Preslav, where, in the monastery of St. Panteleimon, St. Naum and the Bulgarian ruler presided over this literary work. If we look at the works of translation, as well as those of composition, we see that they come almost exclusively from the Christian tradition of Byzantine civilization. The ancient Greek authors are absent. Symeon reformed the Slavic alphabet of Cyril and Methodius creating the Cyrillic alphabet, the basic form still used by many southern and eastern Slavs today. He and his colleagues proceeded to the massive work of translating religious texts from the Greek: the church fathers, theological treatises, religious poetry, hagiographical and apocryphal literature. A few Byzantine chronicles were also translated, though the more formidable Greek historians of the Byzantine tradition were not. In the south of the Bulgarian kingdom, St. Clement created a school for priests and monks primarily concerned with the mass conversion of the Slavs. Thus the approach of the Bulgarians to literary activity was even more strictly functional. They needed religious books to assist in the education of the first generation of Slavic priests, and texts which would assist them in the liturgy, canon law, and in the sermonizing of their new flocks. The dialect of Cyril and Methodius, known today as Old Church Slavonic, became the Latin and Greek of the Slavic world, a universal language for the cultural and religious life of the majority of Slavs. Symeon's labor not only culminated in the first golden age of Bulgarian literature, but this Slavonized Byzantine literature became the model for later Serbian, Rumanian, and Russian literatures. Together with Christianity, Symeon and the Bulgars adopted the entire political and artistic culture of Byzantine civilization. In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, this Slavonized Byzantine civilization appeared in Serbia; in the eleventh century it had appeared and spread in Kiev, and in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries it was to shape the politico-cultural life of the Rumanian principalities.
In some respects the Bulgars were to play a role in disseminating much of Byzantine civilization, recalling that of the Syriac Christians in the diffusion of elements of Byzantine civilization to the Islamic world. There is one obvious and very great difference. The Slavs borrowed only the Christian element from Byzantine civilization, but they adopted it in toto. The Muslims avoided this Christian element, and took the scientific-philosophic baggage of Hellenic culture. Why the difference? The difference is due to the different stage of development of Islamic and Slavic societies. The latter was characterized by illiteracy and the absence of a systematic educational system. The former fell heir to the late ancient Greek educational system and its intellectual life, as embodied in the Syriac schools of the caliphate. The Slavic world was to know the Greek classical culture only much later, and then from the Latin West. In the tenth and eleventh centuries it was not yet time for them to deal with such a sophisticated body of knowledge.
In many ways the most complex and dynamic relation with the two strands of Byzantine civilization was that of the Latin West. Whereas it is true that Western and Byzantine societies went their own ways after having split off from ancient Hellenic civilization and the Roman Empire, and that their separation was sealed by the Great Schism of the two churches in 1054 and the conquests of the' Fourth Crusade, relations remained, nonetheless, close. The Papacy, Venice, and the other Italian cities entered into an ever closer relation with declining Byzantium from the late eleventh century onward.
The Lalin West underwent, basically, three periods of influence emanating from Byzantine civilization. The first was that of late antiquity, culminating in the aborted effort of the Roman senator Boethius to translate all Greek writings into Latin. In this period, Latin translations appeared of the Gospels, the Pentateuch, and other Greek religious texts. In the second wave of Greek influence, Aristotle and Galen were transformed into Latin from their Arabic versions in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, thus exercising important influence on both Latin medicine and theology. But as of this time the Latin West had only a very imperfect and often marginal knowledge of the Greek texts, whether from the Hellenic or from the Christian strand.
It was the rise of Humanism and the Renaissance in Italy- primarily in Florence, Venice, and Rome-that radically altered this relationship. The rise of early modern culture and society in Italy and the school system involving the studio luimanitatis led to the development of humanism and to the restudy of the Latin classics. Once this had been effected, the Italians turned to the prototypes of ancient Latin literature, that is, ancient Greek literature. Petrarch and Boccacio gave substantial impetus to this development. It is important to note that aside from the intimate contacts with Byzantium, there was a substantial body of Greek-speaking population still living in southern Italy and Sicily, and that the classical texts were being read there by Byzantine scholars as well. Italians began to come to Constantinople to study Greek, to read the classics with their Byzantine teachers, and to collect the Greek manuscripts. Then Manuel Chrysoloras went to teach Greek at the University of Florence in 1397. With the coming of George Pletho to Florence the impetus was given for the founding of the famous Florentine academy. And finally, with the fall of Constantinople many Byzantine scholars fled to Italy, especially to Venice. Pope Nicholas V (1447-55) brought together a board of scholars to translate all Greek writings.
In short, the Italian humanists translated much of the corpus of Greek literature, both the Hellenic and the Christian. Marsilio Ficino, head of the Florentine Platonic Academy, alone translated the entire corpus of the Platonic dialogues and Plotinus as well. The impact of the massive translation of both the pagan and Christian Greek texts-in the fields of literature, medicine, science, theologv, patristics, and homiletics-had a profound influence not only on the culture of the Italian Renaissance but on that of the entire European world down to our own time. The Italians, as the first modern people, were in a position to make use of the entire range of Hellenic and Christian Byzantine texts, literature, theology, and science. The impact, thereafter, on Western civilization, literature, and education was incalculable.
Thus, whereas the Islamic world took only a portion of the Hellenic strand of Byzantine civilization, and the Slavs only the religious strand. Western civilization became the most nearly complete heir and continuator of the double heritage of Byzantine culture, remolding and reinterpreting this heritage within its own society.
In closing, I will address the continuity of Byzantine civilization within its own homeland, the lands of the former Byzantine Empire and Tsarist Russia. The most direct heirs remain the modern Greeks, Bulgars, Serbs, Rumanians, Russians, Ukrainians, and all their foreign diasporas in the United States, Canada, and Australia. The Greeks, by way of history and modern ideology, have embraced both ancient Greece and Byzantium as their heritage. The Christian strand of their culture remained constant, even during the long night of Muslim Turkish rule. They remained in contact with their Hellenic heritage through their language and education, but especially through the contacts of their intellectuals with Venice and Padua. The Bulgars, Rumanians, Serbs, Russians, and Ukrainians retained as their living heritage the Christian strand of Byzantine civilization, having been introduced to the classics much later by Western Europeans.
Despite Stalin and Lenin, who had conceived the plan of murdering the religious strand of Byzantine civilization, two generations after the inception of world Communism, it seems that the church fathers will, as they always have, preside over the burial even of that entire system. When Demetrios I, archbishop of Constantinople and the 269th ecumenical patriarch, visited his Orthodox flock in America during July of 1990, President George Bush, the State Department, and the U.S. Congress greeted him as the spiritual leader and father of 250,000,000 Orthodox Christians of Eastern Europe, and gave him the reception of a head of state. Byzantine civilization lives, and its religious strand will now return to its original function in Eastern Europe as a spiritual and ethical leader of its adherents.
A.J. Toynbee, A Study of History, abridgement of vols. I-VI by D. C. Somervell (New York and London, 1969), 1-43.
Speros Vryonis. Byzantine Civilization, a World Civilization / Сервер восточноевропейской археологии, (http://archaeology.kiev.ua/pub/vryonis.htm).
Speros Vryonis. Byzantine Civilization, a World Civilization // Byzantium: a World Civilization. Washington, 1992. С. 19-35.